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Study: Living in Cities Puts You at Higher Risk of Mental Illness


"We provide the first mechanism that links cities to mental illness via social stress."

Does living in an urban area really put you at greater risk for developing mental illness? That's what a new German study has found. When comparing country residents to their urban counterparts, researchers found that city slickers are more prone to feel stress -- especially social stress. reports that, although the study doesn't indicate what particular aspects of city life had altered the students' brains, it does provide a springboard for future exploration:

“Whether people are exposed to noise, live near a park, have a big group of friends or not — you can do those experiments, and tease apart which parts of urban living are associated with these changes,” said Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, a psychiatrist at German’s Central Institute of Mental Health.

Meyer-Lindenberg’s findings, published June 23 in Nature, are a neurological investigation into the underpinnings of a disturbing social trend: As a rule, city life seems to generate mental illness.

Wired also explains that past studies have concluded that city residents have more anxiety and are found to also have higher levels of mood disorders. Risk for schizophrenia among urbanites is nearly double as well.

To some, these findings won't come as a surprise. Cities are generally more stressful places. They typically include frantic people rushing about, and a plethora of loud noise raging incessantly. Thus, researchers may be onto something.

Here's how the study was conducted: Researchers tested 32 German students (16 males and 16 females). Prior to the test, heart rate, blood pressure and stress hormones were taken into account. All of the subjects, regardless of city or country residency, had similar personalities and health indicators. Wired has more:

During the test itself, the students were put inside a brain-scanning fMRI machine, then asked to take a computerized math test designed to be socially stressful: Each correct answer was followed by more difficult questions, false feedback told each student that his or her score was exceptionally low, instructors glared disapprovingly and bemoaned the waste of money.

The city kids displayed heightened levels of activity in two brain regions: the amygdala, which is central to processing emotion and stress, and the perigenual anterior cingulate cortex, which regulates the amygdala. In short, city brains had disproportionately amplified responses to social stress. They’d become sensitized.

In a repeat of the study with additional subjects, the same results occurred. It turns out, the larger the city, the more active the amygdala and cingulate cortex were. Bottom line: City life, according to the research, has profound effects on those who experience it.

With more and more people living in urban areas, understanding the impact that conditions have on human beings is essential. To fully grasp the entire impact, further research with more intricate processes will need to be undertaken.

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